The challenge of covering Trump

CNN correspondents and commentators experienced the 2016 presidential election in unique and interesting ways. This recollection and others were produced in conjunction with CNN's election project, "A Race Like No Other: The Unprecedented Election of 2016."

(CNN)Here's a confession: I was present at the creation. Donald Trump rode down his golden escalator to announce his candidacy about 11 a.m., June 16, 2015. After 45 minutes of rambling divisiveness that included some of his early hits -- introducing "Make America Great Again," boasting about his wealth and calling Mexicans "rapists" -- I was slack-jawed and ready to do post-game commentary on CNN.

My on-air reaction to the man who would be the GOP nominee? "This is a reality TV show star trying to run to pump up his profile even more because he is drunk on pure ego." At the end of this surreal and unprecedented election, this still sounds about right to me.
The media came under a lot of criticism for underestimating Trump and dismissing his supporters. I always believed he could do well in the primaries. After all, the GOP had been systematically excommunicating its center-right, leaving it susceptible to a hostile takeover from conservative populists who for decades had been pained by economic and cultural change. They weren't in the mood for a moderate candidate wielding thoughtful policies that could unite the nation. They were ready to fall in love with a defiantly un-PC celebrity strongman.
We'd seen Trump's political stripes when he was cheerleading the birther conspiracy theory four years earlier. There was little reason to think that he'd suddenly discover a political conscience or deep policy chops. But I mistakenly thought that a master marketer who'd been obsessed with cultivating the press for decades would try to win over the media. Instead, Trump decided to declare war on journalists.
    The Daily Beast got an early taste of the Trump team's tactics the month after his announcement, when reporter Tim Mak called Michael Cohen, special counsel to the Trump Organization, to ask about a long-forgotten deposition from Trump's first divorce. In it, Trump's first wife, Ivana, accused him of making her feel "violated" during sex at the end of their marriage and used the word "rape" to describe one incident in 1989, according to "Lost Tycoon: The Many Lives of Donald J. Trump," by Harry Hurt III. She later retracted the allegation and, during the campaign, said the story was "totally without merit."
    In response to the inquiry, Cohen threatened Mak: "I will make sure that you and I meet one day while we're in the courthouse. And I will take you for every penny you still don't have. And I will come after your Daily Beast and everybody else that you possibly know," Cohen said. "So I'm warning you, tread very fucking lightly, because what I'm going to do to you is going to be fucking disgusting. You understand me?"
    As editor-in-chief of The Daily Beast, I understood well enough to publish Cohen's threats. Trump then went on CNN to deny that Cohen ever threatened our reporter and to denounce The Daily Beast. I returned fire the next morning on CNN's "New Day," furious that campaign officials thought they could get away with threatening a reporter. Tone comes from the top of every organization and the fight fell clearly within our mission to confront bullies, bigots and hypocrites. But in subsequent conversations, it quickly became clear that the Trump Organization had been accustomed to silencing critics by threatening to sue.
    The themes that would dominate much of Trump's campaign -- divisive populist appeals, attacks on the media, legal threats and un-chivalrous behavior towards women -- were all apparent, in embryo, during the early weeks of his campaign. The Daily Beast was one of the first news organizations to be blacklisted by the Trump campaign for most of the election cycle. We shared this distinction with The Washington Post, Buzzfeed, Politico and National Review -- a testament to Trump's thin skin. We considered it a badge of honor.
    The Trump team attacked the media as a way to deflect criticism, distract voters and attempt to avoid being held accountable. Ultimately, all major news organizations -- except far-right outlets like Breitbart, whose CEO, Steve Bannon, became chair of the Trump campaign -- were forced to confront the challenge that came from covering Trump. All politicians spin and some lie outright. But analysis showed that Trump lied with such abandon that constant "reality checks" were required to ensure a fact-based debate.
    Reporters work hard to avoid partisan slants. But we have an equal and sometimes competing responsibility to avoid false equivalencies that can come from uncontested "on the one hand/on the other" coverage. One of the lasting legacies of this campaign may well be the recognition that news organizations need to be relentlessly nonpartisan when it comes to politics but not neutral when it comes to reporting the facts, without fear or favor.